Martin Van Buren.
Many Americans today don’t even recognize his name, or if asked, might wonder if he’s an old author or entrepreneur.
I dimly recalled that he was one of our previous presidents, just not one of the ones I paid much attention to.
That’s why visiting former presidents’ historic homes is fun for me — I learn a little history (which I probably should have learned in school) and get to know a fairly obscure former president a little better. Martin Van Buren was the 8th president of the United States and the first to be born a citizen of the United States of America.
Although not very well known today, President Van Buren, a founder of the Democratic Party, dealt with the country’s most important issues of his day, helped create political parties and wrestled with the country’s largest crisis of his time, slavery.
Van Buren purchased the Lindenwald estate, approximately 125 acres of land, in 1839 for $14,000 while he was still in office. However, Van Buren did not move into the home until 1841 (after he was defeated for his second term).
He named the estate Lindenwald, after the American Linden (Tilia americana) trees lining the Albany-to-New York Post Road, a small portion of which is still located in front of the home.
Originally built by Judge Peter Van Ness in 1797, Van Buren requested architect Richard Upjohn to make renovations and substantially changed the house’s appearance in the late 1840s.
Red bricks were painted yellow and brown, and an Italianate tower was added to the rectangular Georgian structure to break up the now out-of-style symmetry. A Gothic Revival front porch with elegant Victorian tracery was added.
Victorian interior details — arched doorways and such — were added, although the home retained its colonial interior roots.
He won the 1836 presidential election with the endorsement of popular outgoing President Andrew Jackson and the organizational strength of the Democratic Party.
He lost his 1840 reelection bid to the Whig nominee, William Henry Harrison, thanks in part to the poor economic conditions around the country.
Later in his life, Van Buren emerged as an elder statesman and an important anti-slavery leader who led the Free Soil Party (a precursor to the anti-slavery Republican Party) ticket in the 1848 presidential election, gaining 10 percent of the vote.
Questions about the future and expansion of slavery (now euphemistically referred to as “states rights”), the forced removal of indigenous people from their lands, the role of the government in the economy, and even the fate of the United States of America, were asked around family dinner tables across the nation during the two decades before the Civil War.
All these issues have modern implications for Americans today — issues such as restitution for the descendants of those enslaved, how we honor our treaties with and whether we recognize Native American reservations as sovereign territory, and how much should government intervene and dictate public health measures — or not — to ensure the economy’s health are topics we’re currently debating.
Van Buren died in July 1862, while the Civil War was consuming the nation.
Because, why not, we also visited Van Buren’s grave, in nearby Kinderhook Cemetery, which was established in 1818. It was very picturesque on a rainy fall day.
Know before you go: Get a preview of the mansion (or if it’s still closed because of covid-19 precautions), enjoy a virtual tour: https://www.nps.gov/mava/learn/photosmultimedia/virtualtour.htm
Getting there: 1013 Old Post Rd, Kinderhook, NY
Hours: Before visiting, please check the park website to determine its operating status.
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